Category Archives: Literature

Short Review of How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball is one of the novelists working at the moment who is really pushing the art form in interesting directions. His previous novel, A Cure for Suicide, was equally entrancing. However, the whole ambiguity-as-climax technique is getting a little tired, though it is nowhere near as on the nose as the ending of Inception, for example. Ambiguity in literature gives life and tension to the work, but to repeatedly structure a story to arrive at that particular conclusion is to run the risk of M. Night Shyamalan-ing oneself.

And it’s not just Ball’s style that seems familiar. At one point about a third of the way through, How to Set a Fire and Why really started to feel (a lot) like The Catcher in the Rye updated for the twenty-first century. The main character, Lucia Stanton, started sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield. Intelligent, yet disaffected, and at that particularly teenage stage of viewing morality in terms of high contrast. Both are full of moral pronouncements tailored to scenarios far more specific than actually encountered.

Like Holden, Lucia is also going through this stage of maturation without guidance and direction. This lack of direction obscures their foresight leaving them at the mercy of impulse, particularly when the impulses are simply too far removed from the theoretical scenarios for them to rely upon their own inchoate moral sensibility.

 

Ball is a talented and inventive writer who is (gently) pushing narrative boundaries and providing us with some amazing sentences. Ball’s style tends to the dreamlike anyways, which may be painting him into a corner as far as the search for an authentic ending is concerned. A climax which is too concrete might just disrupt the whole delicate house of cards that he has constructed. Both novels that were mentioned are delightful and invigorating reads that, despite themselves, don’t seem to satisfy. How to Set a Fire and Why is a blistering, yet ultimately ephemeral, read.

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Review of “Half of a Yellow Sun”

A few days ago there was a quote going around on Facebook:

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.

—Richard Price

The main problem with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel is that it is too big. The story is set across the Biafran War and takes on some super-human challenges along the way: Colonialism; African cultural diversity; war and war-crimes; humanitarian crises; sisters. It really has an amazing scope.

And yet, for all of the potential, this novel is curiously unaffecting. All of the emotional cues are there, but they are never brought to bear (unlike Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which had me blubbering unabashedly even as I felt completely manipulated).

The story centres on a number of personal relationships, which I think is the correct instinct, but it is too unfocused. Is the house-boy, Ugwu, the glue that binds the tale, or is it the relationship between twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, or their respective romantic relationships? At certain junctures it is each of these, lasting only a moment before moving to the next.

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The depiction of personal relationships are quite divergent. On one hand, the studies are character driven and are nuanced and individual in their observations. On the other, they tend to the soap-operatic.

The action of the novel is treated similarly schizophrenically. Much like The Kite Runner, the novel is at its most interesting in its depictions of a pre-war society. The war and the resultant humanitarian crisis (that is, humanitarian crisis as an act of war) is handled much less deftly than Ugwu’s removal from his tribe to take up a position as Odenigbo’s house-boy, for example.

The novel swings wildly between quiet introspection and fever-pitch with barely any notes in between. The moments of high-drama become almost bland in the relentlessness of their tone—an effect of being too big to write about. Instead of writing about a “kid’s burnt socks” we are instead given a fleeing scene where a barely before seen servant is decapitated and yet continues to run.

Although fictionalised, the novel has a ring of authenticity to it, and indeed, the author based much of the action on stories from her parents and others of the generation that survived the Biafran War. Generally, I dislike recommending (blatantly) for edification but this book has real value as an historical textbook.

Tonal flaws aside, the style and the pacing are adequate. The story is broken in to four sections and we move between the early and late sixties. This allows for some light suspense but does not produce the convergent climaxes of other books, such as Leila Aboulela’s Minaret or Liam Murray Bell’s The Busker.

Overall, the book is rewarding on an intellectual level but fails to engage on a more visceral level. This restraint would certainly have been better served reining in the melodrama and perhaps even the ambitious nature of the story—writing small instead of being swept up by the epicness of it all.

 

 

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Short Review of The Girl on the Train

Any story told from multiple points of view will contain plenty of conflicting information. Imagined slights; misheard snippets; the brain’s impulse to compensate for inadequate data and knowledge. These are the constant underpinnings of human subjectivity. They are what give us agency but also isolate our experiences away from universality, producing experience that “is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.”1

A precarious situation is this finding-ourselves-in-the-world. But now add further impediments: addiction, paranoia, trauma. The possibility of knowing oneself already reduced; the possibility of truly knowing someone else a dangerous illusion. Perhaps the most sincere are the most misleading. When faced with three unreliable narrators the mystery can transmute in an instant.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a thriller about what we think we saw, what we think we did. What we think we remember.

After all, what is a mystery book if not the archaeology of the surprising connections between ourselves and others that hide away from our own limited point-of-view.

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1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005), 153.

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Review of “Mrs Engels”

It has been quite some time since I read Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. There are really only two things that I remember.

The first was his argument against the suggestion that the working classes were profligate. Engels’s point was that the relative duration of good and bad times meant that the only noticeable effect of saving when possible was an overall lowering of the standard of living.

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The second feature that sticks with me is that although Engels decried the English treatment of the Irish as sub-human, he also grudgingly admitted they had a point:

True, this limit is relative; one needs more than another, one is accustomed to more comfort than another; the Englishman who is still somewhat civilised, needs more than the Irishman who goes in rags, eats potatoes, and sleeps in a pig-sty. 1

Both Engels’s sympathy for the working poor and racism get a brief run in Mrs Engels, but the work, while being ostensibly historical fiction, is essentially a character study of Engels’s de facto partner, Lizzie Burns.2

As far as literary heroines go, Lizzie is not particularly likeable—even though most other characters at one point or another refer to her as a being a good sort. Lizzie is capricious, petty, devious, and generous by turns. Lizzie seems to regularly set off with good intentions only to have them thwarted by a spasm of pique. However, the enthralling quality of Lizzie is that she gives voice to all of the unflattering things that people think but rarely admit. The author also engages in little touches that flesh out Lizzie’s portrait, such as the occasional misspelt word, or phonetically spelt (particularly Engels’s German utterances), to illustrate her illiteracy.

This novel contains the fullest representation of the inner life of any character I have seen in literature. In that way, it is almost a kind of stream-of-consciousness. However, stream-of-consciousness is a stylistic representation of thought—that is, what is important is how to represent thought as an activity, and not so much what was thought about—, and while there are certainly elements of that here, it is not an adequate explanation for most of what is occurring.

Do not let this talk of stream-of-consciousness be distracting, for Mrs Engels is firmly in the historical fiction genre and as a piece of historical fiction the work is fascinating for its insights into Marxism and the milieu in which Marx and Engels were operating. Unlike some historical fiction (ahem, Ophelia’s Muse), the touch is light enough so that the parade of historical characters does not seem contrived or obligatory and their main theoretical points not simply plucked from Wikipedia.

The book also seems to be a study of the Irish notion of “grand,” which apparently means, “Okay, but only just.” The first few times the Engels reacts to Lizzie describing something as “grand” I thought it was a misunderstanding on the part of the German language native. It’s not until a flashback in which Lizzie’s sister, Mary (Fred’s original paramour), explains what grand means in Irish English.

For all that is wonderful about this book, the pace is reasonably plodding and the plot deceptively thin. These are relatively minor issues, but it does mean that patience and persistence are required for what is ultimately a satisfying read.


1 Engels’s larger point is that the Irish drove down wages because they were willing to work for lower wages because they required “less.” Excerpt From: Engels, Friedrich. “The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 / with a Preface written in 1892.” iBooks.

2 Although Engels regarded the contemporary form of marriage as a form of class oppression, he eventually married Lizzie on her deathbed. However, Engels initially spent twenty years with Lizzie’s sister, Mary Burns, who was also opposed to marriage.

 

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Review of “The Kite Runner”

Generally I enjoy books while I read them (with some exceptions—I’m looking at you, The Shameful State) with the problems of the particular book only revealed upon reflection. That being said, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner there are a couple of jarring moments of overwrought melodrama. 

In broad strokes, the story tells of a privileged Afghan boy who leaves Afghanistan as a refugee and begins a new life in America only to be called back nearly two decades later. 

It is this return to Afghanistan that marks the turn from affecting tale to heavy handed plot twists. Coincidences begin to proliferate at an astonishing rate, as characters and incidents from the first half are paraded through the redemption quest phase of the story. It would have been a stronger work if only the author had reined in a couple of the plot twists. 

The first half is unique and deeply affecting, but is let down by too many contrivances in the back end. Overall, The Kite Runner is a pretty good read if you willingly submit to its emotional manipulation and tendency towards melodrama. 

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The Solitude of Thomas Cave: A Review

Set in 1660, Georgina Harding’s debut novel is the story of Thomas Cave who, on a bet, spends a winter alone in the Arctic. The barren harshness of the Arctic winter provides a blank—well, white—canvas upon which the character of Thomas Cave is painted.

Thomas Cave’s story is bookended by the first-person accounts of Thomas Goodlard. The technique of using a relatively minor character to contextualise the main narrative is not unusual, but I particularly like the relationship between the two. Despite being quite close to Cave around the time of the adventure, Goodlard is never really told what Cave went through that winter, and his incomplete understanding creates tension.

Goodlard’s first-person account is contrasted with the omniscient narrator which tells Cave’s story. Goodlard belongs firmly to the world of men, a world based around the ‘I.’ Cave stands aloof from men—even before his voluntary isolation, but particularly after it. (And through it, obviously.) The novel is a parable demonstrating the divisions between Man and Nature, Man and God, even Man and Himself. It is the latter of this triumvirate that renders a first-person narrative ineffectual for Cave’s story. Yet it is this separation of Man from Himself that allows Cave to reconcile the first two divisions. In contrast, Goodlard is never not completely himself, and that keeps him from understanding Cave’s revelations about Nature and God.

The Solitude of Thomas Cave

While there is tension between the two character’s narratives, and between the concurrent narratives of Cave’s survival and remembrance, Cave’s new understandings of God and Nature are driven by the contrast between the summer and winter of the Arctic—a contrast that Cave is the only person to endure.

The once pristine area is stained by human activity and atrocity. But once Thomas Cave is left behind, all the masks of humanity, all the incidentals of existence are stripped away, leaving survival and memory—humanity in its purest state. The landscape, for all its fierceness and complete indifference to mankind during the winter months, retains the signs of human vandalism as the damage done in previous summers returns after winter: the grease, the blood stains, the skeletal remains.

Thomas Cave’s voluntary solitude, completely removed from the world of Man, reveals to Cave that Nature has its own, rightful, existence. By attempting to prove that man is indomitable and can conquer nature, Cave realises that man is not the master of nature, but its dependent.

Georgina Harding’s first novel is a solid, enjoyable effort but ultimately unfulfilling. The amount of time spent on the psychological troubles of Thomas Cave is not justified by the results. Haunted by loss, Cave is neither psychologically complicated, nor redeemed by his flagellation: “’If there was one thing I learnt in the North, Tom Goodlard, it was this: that there are no devils out there. No devils in the ice or the snow or the rocks, none but those inside us, those we bring.’”

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Big Boned

Let me begin by clearing up any confusion for anyone who found this post via a search engine: This probably isn’t what you are looking for. Feel free to leave. Okay, now that’s taken care of, let the review proper begin.

Big Boned is the third Heather Wells book by Meg Cabot. I have not read the first two, but from what I could gather, Heather Wells is a former popstar who now works in administration at a dorm. Sorry, residence hall. Based on what I assume to be the events of the first two books, the dorm, Fisher Hall, is referred to as Death Dorm. Predictably, director spots are hard to fill, so the college appoints an interim director, who, you know, gets murdered

It’s hard to know what to make of Ms. Cabot’s novel. On the one hand, it is very fast-paced and written in a likeable manner. On the other, it is largely forgettable. The book is caught between a detective story and a romance and does not succeed as either. As a detective story, the plot is weak and low on details and in general not developed enough to have a twist.

Actually, now that I come back to this two weeks later, I can’t even remember who the murderer was. Okay, I have now, but it shouldn’t have taken that long. Like I said, highly forgettable.

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